I’ve never been to Jamaica, but there is something about Jerk Chicken that I have become obsessed with.The romance of this dish is three-fold to me:
- Where there is smoke, there is flavor
- A flavorful marinade of spices, acid, oil, and herbs is best when it’s kept simple
- Where there is poverty, there is ingenuity
While I’m lucky enough to have access to fresh ingredients and a proper grill, most great Jerk Chicken from the motherland is cooked on a grill fashioned from scrap metal or an oil drum. The spiciness of the dish is often a solution for chickens that may be a little past their prime, and the smoky flavor from pimento wood is the ultimate form of adaption to the resources that are cheap and close by.
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s delicious technique for this Jamaican staple is largely maintained in my version, however I’ve tweaked a few things to adapt to my own tastes and surroundings, upping the flavor and simplifying the grilling technique.
- 4-6 whole skin-on chicken thighs, deboned at home or by your butcher (I prefer doing it at home because it’s relaxing and good knife skill practice)
- 1 bunch scallions, roughly chopped
- 6-8 medium garlic gloves
- 10-12 habanero chiles, stems removed
- 1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, roughy chopped
- 2-3 tsp ground All Spice
- 2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves (dried thyme works fine too)
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 TBSP brown sugar
- 1-2 TBSP neutral oil, like canola
- 2 TBSP light soy sauce
- Juice from 1 lime
- For serving: lime wedges, a few sprigs fresh cilantro or mint
- Debone the chicken thighs. A small, sharp paring knife is my weapon of choice for this task, as it makes progressive, shallow cuts around the bone, leaving the meat and skin of the thigh in one piece. It takes a little practice but once you get the hang of it, you can do it in your sleep.
- Combine all the other ingredients (except for the final garnish) in a blender or food processor and pulse until well combined. Taste for spice level….it should be quite spicy. Add a little more soy sauce or lime juice if it’s too thick. You want it to cling to the chicken but not be too much of a paste.
- Lay the deboned chicken thighs flat on a tray or large plate and cover with the marinade, turning once to ensure thorough coating. Refrigerate for a few hours or even overnight if you want, but I’ll often just leave them out for an hour at room temp if I’m prepping and grilling after work.
- Heat your grill (charcoal preferred but a good, hot propane grill will work too) and clean and oil the grates.
- This is where the fun starts. The challenge of this dish is to 1) get the skin crispy and 2) impart as much smokey flavor as possible.
- I’ve found this general process pretty straightforward…start the thighs skin side down away from direct heat. This will help render some of the fat without overcooking the chicken. Cover. After a few minutes, move thighs, skin side up this time, to direct heat, and cook for 1-2 minutes. Remove from direct heat then cover. After 2-3 minutes, uncover, and move skin side down to direct heat and cook until you get crispy skin….there will be some flareups, which is okay, you’re shooting for some char and some smoke. If the flareups engulf the meat, move it quickly to the side, rest for 30 seconds, and repeat. There’s a delicate balance between blackened and burned.
- For even extra flavor and smoke (this is from Kenji’s technique), you can add a bunch of bay leaves that have been soaked in water to the grill for the whole process, probably as far from the direct heat as possible, and use them as a nice bed of flavor for the covered or resting periods of cooking.
- The whole process should take no more than 10-12 minutes, after which you should let the meat rest for another 3-4 minutes, then serve. It all depends on your grill setup. You’ll get the hang of it quickly (there are infinite variations of other marinades that will rely on this same technique for you to perfect). Chicken thighs are forgiving, but you still don’t want to cook them too far north of 155-160 F, so it’s also helpful to use a high quality thermometer to keep track along the way.